As Long as the B52s Are Here
Wednesday, 23 July 2003
In spite of a few hours delay in Paris, I reached Dubai with enough time to check into my next flight, have a meal with a French psychologist who’s visiting Kabul, and do some duty free shopping. What I could not get was the few hours of sleep that I usually pack into my Dubai stay. Which is why I should go to bed in a couple of minutes.
Life at the office seems normal enough, with meetings and reports and what not. The weather’s a bit hotter, making it impractical to spend much time outdoors. At the guest house, we have a nice table, some chairs and a parasol in the garden. It should be great for having candle-lit dinners in the open air, under a starry sky, especially now that Agha Sarwar’s back from Pakistan, safe and sound.
Thursday, 24 July 2003
The long-awaited ceremony to give out certificates for our training courses at television finally happened today, but not without its own hiccups. One senior manager who was meant to be there had just been moved to another post, perhaps as part of the political battle by the government to replace officials who belong to Mr Rabbani’s Jam’iyat-e Eslami. The latest issue of one of the organization’s papers, Payam-e Mojahed, was seized by armed officers last week because it had carried an article criticizing Mr Karzai’s two contradictory speeches over Pakistan a few weeks ago, saying he was not strong enough to lead the country and should resign.
Interestingly, the Aftab newspaper, with its now infamous ‘Sacred Fascism' article, was banned several days after it had been published. Critics have accused the government of having supported that newspaper and its writers, who are said to have left Afghanistan after having been freed on bail. [Mr Mahdavi, his wife, and his two young daughters arrived in Canada in October 2003, after being granted emergency refugee status - Pen Canada. In November 2003, Mr Payam-Sistani was reported to be in Norway, and the paper’s Deputy Editor, Sayed Hadi Khatibi in Canada - D Lamar Rona weblog.
Also absent from our ceremony were the American Ambassador and the head of USAID who had been invited by the same official who has now been shifted to another post. One other person who was meant to be at the ceremony had forgotten about and it and was reminded of the event when we called them to find out how they were planning to get there. The small presents we were meant to give the participants were not with us when we got there and we had to phone and ask for them to be driven over at great speed. And one of the certificates had the wrong name on it – my own fault entirely, which I corrected the same day.
Still, the ceremony went very well, with all eleven participants attending. They and their managers were very complimentary about the courses and asked us to do more – an offer which I gladly accepted. If we do succeed in the plans we discussed roughly, we could set up a training department for Afghanistan Radio and Television.
Another delightful experience was to meet the senior Afghan journalist who has been helping with the coverage of our events and has now been appointed head of Radio and Television’s arts department. The appointment is another political move to reduce the influence of the government’s opposition in the organization.
While we were in his office, two of his staff came over to brief him on an investigative report on the black market in mobile phone SIM cards and the fake cards that enter the market. They said they had filmed staff of the much derided phone company selling cards to black market dealers in exchange for dollar notes. My friend said the report had to be shown very soon. He also said that the night before the team had run a piece very critical of the Kabul bus company – a night after another program had run an interview in which the company officials had spoken of their services and achievements. I do hope this performance can be maintained, without costing anyone their job – to say the least.
Saturday, 26 July 2003
To Kabul University first thing in the morning, to confirm some details of our 5-day workshop which is due to start next Saturday. Back at the office, we fixed some more details for the same project before going to a meeting on future training at the Ministry of Women’s Affairs. They asked for a course on Persian language and literature. Very timely, since in the morning I was able to drop by Kabul’s most important bookshop, Beyhaqi, to buy a book specifically for the purpose of designing courses on comparative Persian, using classical texts as examples of clarity and conciseness.
The book I bought was Sa’di’s 13th century collections of verse, Boustan (The Orchard), and prose, Golestan (The Rose Garden) – still among the best Persian texts. Another everlasting text is the 11th century Tarikh (or History), by Beyhaqi, after whom the bookshop is named. Alas it was not available, nor was a very recent book on Afghanistan poetry. The manager explained the most of the stocks had been burned by the Taliban, adding that new stocks were due to come in from India and Iran soon – how soon, no one can tell.
At the end of the day, there was a celebration – with music, drama and refreshments - at the Aina Center to launch a computer course for women journalists. One Iranian visitor, from France, expressed surprise that the beginning of something was being marked, rather than its completion. Fair point, but after two decades of perpetual mourning, I think it’s a great idea to have a celebration here on every conceivable occasion.
There now is some news about the heavy American air force traffic two nights ago. A newspaper report says one B52 and two fighters bombed the area around the town of Asadabad in the eastern province of Kunar. Judging by the continuous roar over our heads, there were either more than two planes involved, or the two that are reported must have been constantly going back and forth over a distance of around 250 kilometers between Kabul and Asadabad.
Perfectly in keeping with the custom of conflicting information that one gets – not just here – a friend of mine tells me that he heard a television report saying areas around Jalalabad, about 150 kilometers south-west of Asadabad, had been bombed. Maybe both reports are correct, which would fit in with the volume of air traffic.
Sunday, 27 July 2003
The past few evenings have been the quietest I have experienced since the end of winter. The days have also been less noisy than what one might expect during the ten day school holiday. No surprise, really, since even mad dogs and Englishmen would find it difficult to go out into the midday Kabul sun, let alone the Afghans themselves.
Since the beginning of the real summer, over a month ago, I have been unable to eat anything cooked during the day and have had only some fruits and plenty of water and tea. This is a perfect diet, thanks to the big breakfasts and dinners that Agha Sarwar prepares. The only problem is the falling supply of fruits that has accompanied the rising temperature.
Having been promised Afghanistan’s summer fruits for several months, it’s disappointing to see even less fruits on the market than during the cold season. Sahel-e Sabz stopped serving bananas and apples more than two months ago, and now offers only mangoes – fat and juicy, but also squashy and not very pleasant to tuck into.
Several weeks ago the staff told me they would bring in apricots and peaches – but it turned out, not for the first time, that I had been told something that was only meant to please me. On Saturday, the delightful Del Agha informed me that the mangoes at Sahel-e Sabz were not good and he bought me some sourish apples and shriveled bananas from the market. Today I took along a couple of apples to spare him the torture of cycling in the burning heat, and myself the prospect of crab apples and half baked bananas.
For most Afghan people, the conditions are much worse. With little food and little water, people’s bodies must dry up and their tempers fray even more than usual. This might explain heavy clashes over the past few days between the residents of two villages. Not only the usual small arms, but also heavy weapons were used and hundreds have fled their homes. Rival ‘political’ groups have been blamed for the clashes.
Draped across the bonnet of a bus stuck in the morning traffic jam was a banner with the strangest advertisement I have seen in Kabul: big, blood-red words announcing ‘The Turkish Republic’s Circumcision Services for Afghan Children’. I had no idea that Afghanistan was suffering from such an acute shortage in this area that foreign expertise had to be brought in. Another big banner, again with blood-red writing, spread on the gates of the Turkish Embassy, announced that foreskin removal specialists were based inside the spacious, lush embassy compound, across the street from our offices.
One could start a debate on a range of issues: whether such exports are in keeping with what is described as Ataturk’s secular republic; or if this is an aberration brought about by the Turkey’s current, Islamist government; whether there is an export market for such a service in the West where there is a rising Moslem population but a real shortage of circumcisionists; and if there is a market, what would be a reasonable, competitive and yet profitable fee for the operation.
Another interesting question would be the compatibility of state-sponsored circumcision with human rights, and the impact that such exports could have on Turkey’s wish to join the EU. Whatever the fate of the desired Westward move, here in Kabul knives are at work shaping Turkey’s ‘Ostpolitik’.
Tuesday, 29 July 2003
Having spent the entire day indoors, I have no external scenes or experiences to tell you about. Instead, I can give you a digest of the news from around Afghanistan, mostly from the south and the east which have continued to witness expressions of local identity in the form of armed clashes.
Six policemen have been killed in the province of Nimruz. This cannot increase the public’s confidence in the police force, nor is it likely to entice many recruits into it. The report about the killings said local officials had blamed ‘criminals’, but local people had said the policeman were killed by drug-traffickers – a wording which suggests those involved in the province’s big drugs export business are not considered criminals.
A similar view on the sale of narcotics was expressed in a Shia religious leader’s answers to questions from his followers in Qandahar, published in a newspaper this week. Asked for a ruling on the permissibility of making money from the cultivation and sale of opium, the leader said such revenues were ‘problematic’ – he did not say they were forbidden – adding that the problem could be resolved by making charitable expenditures, rather like the tax breaks enjoyed by Western companies in exchange for spending money on arts and such like. On heroin, he was more prohibitive, but only marginally so, again saying that it would be alright to spend the revenues on charitable activities.
Interestingly, the Shia who are a minority in Afghanistan, have not been closely identified with the opium cultivation and the drugs trade. The fact that a Shia religious leader is asked questions about the legitimacy of making money by selling drugs seems to suggest that at least some Shia have become interested in entering the trade, if they have no done so already. With millions of people relying on the drugs exports for their livelihood, no religious leader is likely to disapprove of the trade categorically, even if he believed that it was forbidden under Islam.
The drugs trade, like so much else in Afghanistan, has a long history, though the type of commodity has not always been the same. Laws passed more than eighty years ago, by King Amanollah, said it was permissible to grow hashish but only for selling it to foreigners. Today, with Afghanistan supplying about 75% of the world’s opium, little of it is consumed inside the country. Incidentally, King Amanullah is widely seen as the most benign ruler Afghanistan has had for nearly a century, responsible for some of the most progressive laws on women’s rights in the country, to this day.
Back to the present, and the fighting in the south and east. In Helmand’s neighbouring province of Uruzgan, there’s been a rocket attack on the provincial capital, Trinkot. In the same province a few months ago, there was the assassination of the man who had given Mr Karzai sanctuary when he entered Afghanistan to raise forces against Taliban shortly before their fall.
To the south of Uruzgan lies Qandahar, the base, indeed the capital, of the Taliban, where there are regular clashes between them and the American forces. Qandahar is also to the south of the province of Zabol, where the Taliban are reported to be moving around at will and to have formed a parallel administration. The local people complain that the central government has done nothing for them in the 18 months it’s been in power.
Moving east and north, the provinces of Ghazni, Paktika, Paktya, Khost and Logar have been out of the limelight recently. But you will remember the American bombing raids on two other provinces further up the border strip with Pakistan, Nangarhar and Kunar. There is also the matter of the continuing dispute over Pakistani troops entering Afghanistan territory. Mr Karzai is still coming under attack for having apologized to Pakistan and having agreed to pay compensation for the ransacking of the Pakistani embassy, following his own impassioned ant-Pakistani speech in which he dared ‘the enemies’ to challenge Afghanistan on the battle-field.
This is all taking place, of course, against the background of extreme poverty, lack of any infrastructure or amenities for most people and the frustration of many hopes for a bright future after the fall of the Taliban. Some Afghans are reported by the press to be regretting their return from exile in Iran and Pakistan. Shortage of water in an unusually hot summer is going to make life more difficult. The resources are so limited that no amount of clever politicking or administrative skills can bring about the stability and faith in the future that the people so badly desire.
It is in such circumstances that the American government has announced it is putting together one billion dollars to help Afghanistan. Spent on construction, health care and education, such an amount could help a lot. But the announcement said the money would be spent on military and reconstruction, which means the first priority will again be given to men with guns. Also, it looks like the Americans hope to get this money out of other governments, so they can spend what they themselves have on their war in Iraq.
Having said all of that, I must add the Kabul still feels very safe and secure. We have not had any security warnings, except for traveling on one stretch of road way out of the city. In fact, as a sign of increased security, the UN curfew which used to be 11pm to 6am has now been reduced to midnight-4am. We do, after all, have the protection of the 5,000 ISAF soldiers, who will come under direct NATO command in August. We’re also close to the Bagram air base that was once used by the Soviet forces and is now the base of the American Air Force. In the words of another of our wise and witty drivers, Jameel, ‘as long as the B52s are here, we’re going to be alright.’
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